More than 100 people died and 6,000 others sustained injuries earlier this month when security forces in Iraq unleashed live gunfire and scalding hot water cannons on protesters. The unrest in Iraq reflects instability across the entire region, which continues to offer less and less security to Christians and other persecuted minorities.
Last week, about 200 protesters in Baghdad’s Sadr City district clashed with the Iraqi army. The protests, involving mostly young men, began over the lack of jobs and basic services, as well as corruption in the government. The demonstrations quickly grew into calls for leadership change, new elections, and an end to police violence. The government responded with lethal force, creating a humanitarian crisis, according to Human Rights Watch.
In an attempt to quell the unrest, the Iraqi parliament convened and ordered three days of mourning last week. Prime Minister Adil Abdul Mahdi issued a 13-point reform plan for subsidies, housing for the poor, and training initiatives for unemployed youth. Over the weekend, he also ordered an inquiry into the deaths of at least 108 people during the unrest.
Nina Shea, director of the Center for Religious Freedom at the Hudson Institute, said the reforms, which focused on financial payouts to protesters, likely won’t lead to long-term change. “[The unrest] will dim, at least for now, until it builds up and becomes intolerable again,” she said.
The protests strained the year-old Iraqi coalition government in a country caught in the middle of tensions between the United States and Iran. Iran condemned the protests as a failed conspiracy.
Maria Fantappie, a senior adviser on Iraq for the International Crisis Group, said Iran has its own self-interest in mind. “Iraq’s stability is key for Tehran to continue trading with its neighbor, a lifeline in the face of U.S. economic sanctions,” she said.
Iran is investing in the persecution of religious minorities in Iraq, including paying militias to prevent Christians and Yazidis from returning to their homes in the Nineveh Plain, where Islamic State (ISIS) drove them out. The United States imposed sanctions on some of the militia groups in July.
In Syria, the onslaught from Turkish forces on Kurdish areas has mostly targeted Christian sites and neighborhoods. The unrest has displaced at least 130,000 people. On Sunday, more than 700 people linked to ISIS escaped from detention camps the Kurds had guarded before the Turkish offensive began. The same day, the Kurdish fighters struck a deal for protection with the Syrian government that could cost them their semi-autonomous status. The protests in Iraq, pressure and persecution from Iran, and the invasion in Syria combine to make the Middle East an increasingly dangerous place for Christians right now.
“It reverberates throughout the Middle East that things are far from stable,” Shea said. “Christians are looking with deep anxiety that maybe there’s no hope for the cradle of Christianity in the Middle East.”